Investment in Central America deters immigration, aid expert says

The European Union funds a school to provide protection and education to children victims of urban violence in Honduras. (Credit: European Union DG ECHO/Flickr)

As President Donald Trump ramps up policies to deter Central American migrants from entering the U.S., aid experts are more urgently calling for increased foreign aid to the countries migrants are fleeing from.

Yesterday, Trump issued an executive order to start building a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico. The text of the order directs agency directors to “identify and quantify” the amount of aid given to Mexico over the last five years. This has renewed some analysts’s concerns that the Trump administration will attempt to force Mexico to pay for the $14 billion wall by cutting off foreign aid to Mexico – a country they say is vastly underfunded, along with the rest of Central America.

“The bottom line is an ‘America first policy’ – and I say that in quotes – probably equals less foreign aid [in Central America],” said Mauricio Vivero, CEO of the Seattle International Foundation (SIF), in an interview with Humanosphere. “But if we can convince Congress that investing in these countries helps deter immigration, and it’s also very related to violence and the drug trade, then I think we’ve got a shot to keep foreign aid at a decent level.”

SIF works to increase philanthropy and foster collaborations that benefit Central Americans. The foundation also finances advocacy work in Washington, D.C., to help increase government funding for the region, which it says the U.S. is failing to help at the most critical time in its history.

The Northern Triangle – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is now one of the world’s most violent regions, with drug trafficking, gangs and other actors of organized crime fueling a notoriously high murder rate. Dangerous and often warlike conditions have led to a mass exodus of Central Americans trying to illegally enter the United States every year.

Some libertarians and conservatives argue that foreign aid to the region will do more harm than good. Others say that as the world’s largest aid donor, the U.S. has a responsibility to help avert the degradation of social order in the Northern Triangle. In light of devastating poverty rates afflicting the region, many criticize this year’s federal budget for directing less than 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget to foreign aid. Of this foreign aid, less than 1 percent goes to Central America, and Mexico reaps the majority of it ($85.6 million).

The U.S. did sign off on a joint regional plan, the Alliance for Prosperity Plan, in which signing countries agreed to invest $22 billion over a five-year period. When it was announced in 2014, the United States promised to provide $1 billion per year over five years, but last year, total U.S. funding for all of Central America was shy of $750 million.

Human rights groups criticized the aid package for allocating more than 60 percent of its funds toward “security measures.” These groups say that the security focus is a continuation of the several failed strategies already seen throughout Central America. Due to such disagreements, Vivero said that money is still “in the pipeline.”

“The effect on the ground won’t be felt until a year from now,” said Vivero. “We’ll really know when the president issues his budget, that’ll be the key.”

Outside of government spending, any other U.S. aid to Central America comes from the private sector. But according to a September report by SIF and the Foundation Center, this sector has consistently overlooked the region. In 2013, Central America received just 1.1 percent ($68 million) of U.S. foundation funding. Only one-fifth ($13 million) of this money went directly to organizations in Central America.

Among the countries that received direct funding, Guatemala received the most, $19.2 million, followed by El Salvador and Panama.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com